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Notes on "Please Please Me"
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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song
Notes on "Please Please Me"
KEY E Major METER 4/4 FORM Intro-> Verse -> Verse -> Bridge -> Verse -> Outro (w/complete ending)
General Points of Interest
Style and Form
"Please Please Me" was only their second single, but it was already a quantum leap in compositional terms over their first one, "Love Me Do". In addition to the tight vocal harmonies seen earlier, we have here a couple of tricky chord choices, crackling drum fills, continuous variation in the deployment of the backing vocals, and as they say in the 'biz', much, much more.
Compared with the extant tapes of the Quarrymen, the Star Club, the Decca audition, or even the couple of preceding EMI sessions, "Please Please Me" gives us an energized performance and an arrangement more complicated than anything these Boys had attempted heretofore. This would seem to suggest that the firm and creative influence of George Martin began to be felt even at this early date.
This song is also emotionally quite gripping, not only because of its apparently incessant drive, but even more so for the very human way in which the hero appears to waver in the amount of self-control he can muster -- starting out urgently insistent yet trying to appear controlled; talking through clenched teeth in a forced-polite voice, even while his facade is continually cracking to reveal the true heat and impatience behind it. On one level, it's a fairly obvious seduction scenario, yet you find yourself quite hypnotized if not overwhelmed by the force and subtlety with which the meaning of the words are played-off against the message of the music.
The use of a complete ending is noteworthy. In context of the rest of the top 40 of this period, circa 1963, where, failing recourse to a statistical analysis of the matter, we seem to at least remember everything as having a fade out at the end, the relatively large number of early Lennon and McCartney songs with complete endings (12 out of those same canonical early 21 singled out below) would seem to be bucking a trend; then again, perhaps "setting a trend" would be more correct under the circumstances; after all, for a while, it *was* their profession.
The lyrics of the three verse sections create an ABA pattern.
The verses rhythmically start after the downbeat. The bridge starts right on the downbeat.
The 9/11/62 rare version of the song released on Anthology 1 does not at all match Lewisohn's Recording Session commentary for this date. Granted, this outtake is a rough performance in all departments, has Andy White on drums(?), and lacks both the several harmonica overdubs and the interjecting backing vocals of the bridge. But it is far from "dreary" or "too slow." I suspect the latter adjectives were actually in reference to the unfortunately lost demo version done the previous June.
Stating Point of View
The lyrics of "Please Please Me", when compared with the other contemporaneous songs of Lennon and McCartney, seem rather unique in terms of point of view and expositional context. The canonical bundle of their original songs which were officially released up through the end of '63 (i.e., the 21 single and album cuts running from "Love Me Do" through "Not a Second Time") makes for an interesting study from this perspective; a thorough job is way out of scope with this current article but even the bare statistics are revealing.
All 21 songs are about the romantic relationship between a boy and a girl from the perspective of the boy; granted, so far no surprise.
17 of the songs are written in direct address to the girl, and these range from the vulnerable pleading of "Love Me Do" to the mushy puppy love of "Do You Want to Know a Secret", to the glib giddiness of "I Wanna Be Your Man." The harsher confrontations that would suddenly become a staple trademark starting on the "A Hard Day's Night" album with such classics as "Tell Me Why" and "You Can't Do That" are represented in this sampling only by the relatively milder "Not a Second Time."
Two of the songs stick out as unique; "She Loves You", which features core-talk advice from the singer to his friend regarding the *friend's* girl, and our current choice, "Please Please Me".
In "Please Please Me", we have what is in essence a direct address, but one that is framed as kiss-and-tell reportage of something that happened The Night Before; as though most of the lyrics should be written in quotes. Of course, it's a small, even moot, distinction because your ultimate experience of the song is on the level of overhearing the boy urging the girl directly and in real time; like a so-called frame-tale short story in which by the second page you've totally forgotten that there ever was any frame established at the beginning because the action itself is so absorbing.
Melody and Harmony
Compared to the tangy modality of "Love Me Do", the melodic material here is purely diatonic E Major. The verse tune is relatively jumpy and has a broad arch shape. The bridge is also arch shaped with a first half dominated by stepwise motion and a jumpy second half that begins with the dramatic upward leap of an octave.
The harmony, in contrast, while still heavily reliant on I-IV-V, also uses ii, VI, and the presents us with a couple of surprises in the form of the non-indigenous flat-III and flat-VI, which add just a hint of bluesy minor-mode inflection.
The backing track features the basic Beatles combo with added harmonica.
John carries the single tracked lead vocal. The backing vocals are primarily antiphonal with a touch of backwash at the start of the bridge.
The introductory phrase of only four measures played over the unchanging E Major (I) chord is deceptively simple. Here, as we've seen in so many other songs, the intro, for all its brevity, plays a key expository role.
First off, we have the ever popular hook phrase trumpeted out by the harmonica and guitar in unison. In many songs, such hook phrases foreshadow material that will appear in either the melody of the coming verses or as a mockingbird-like obbligato figure in the background. In "Please Please Me" the hook is used both ways.
Secondly, we have the unusual pick-up start on the fourth beat. What you'll look back on later as the unrelenting forward drive of this song is thus to be found here right at the very start in the iambic "da-DUM" gesture of those first two notes; even that little drum fill, which bridges the gap between the end of the intro and the beginning of the verse reinforces this gesture.
Lastly, take note for now of that pleasant dotted quarter note snap in the second measure of our hook phrase; the better to appreciate how the phrase is modified for its appearance in the melody of the verse.
The verse is sixteen measures long and is built out of four phrases of even musical length:
|E |- |A E | G GA AB BB | E: I IV I flat-III IV V |E |- |A E |- | I IV I |A |f# |c# |A | IV ii vi IV |E |A B |E |A B | I IV V I IV V
As you work your way through the four phrases in turn, you quickly discover a clever overall dramatic shape to the verse. The first two phrases hang together like a couplet, and the remaining two phrases seem to meld into a refrain-like eight-measure unit.
The first two phrases are obviously related to each other, though there is a subtlety in the transition between the two of them which is the first clue to our hero's wavering self-control. The last measure of the first phrase, on the one hand, seems to suggest a sudden extra push forward with its syncopated, momentary speed-up of the harmonic rhythm; note the three Major chords moving step-wise in a row and changing on the offbeat, the first of which - G Major - isn't even a legitimate member of the key we're in, adding a bluesy cross relation to the texture - G natural against a background of G sharps. For an instant, we seem to be hurtling just a tad out of control. And yet, with the start of the second phrase, we're right back where we started out before. Order has been restored; as though our hero, carried away by his own sweet excitement quickly catches himself and backs off, the better to resume his former polite and measured, albeit insistent, tack.
Although the second phrase is virtually identical to the first, the difference between them in their final measures is of structural significance. The open ending of the first one on V smoothly motivates the start of the second one. By contrast, the closed harmonic ending of the second phrase on the I chord includes that unusual guitar riff in measure eight, the combination of which sets off this opening couplet from what follows.
The third phrase is one of both musical excursus and build toward a climax by virtue of the introduction of new chords, the progression away from the I yet not necessarily reaching a clear resting point, and of course, the employment in every measure of the hard syncopation on the half-beat between 2 and 3; this last perturbation being ironic to the extent that this very phrase is the only one in the entire song in which the harmonic rhythm holds steady for as long as four measures. The climax, per se, is to be found in the reaching of the melodic apex (high A) of the entire verse in measure 12.
You would surmise at this point that our hero has crossed the start-line and opened his attack for better or worse, but immediately following, we experience yet another retreat of sorts in the way the fourth phrase resolves the accumulated tension of the preceding one with its return to a musical texture and vocabulary that is very close to that of the first two phrases: no more syncopations, a resumption of plain I-IV-V, and an exchange of the "come ons" for the "please pleases"; all this, reinforced by the return of the hook phrase at the very end. Incidentally, note how the placement of the hook above the I-IV-V progression in this context gives it a different feel from the one it has when it is accompanied by just the I chord as in the intro or the first half of the verse.
All this agitation and the thrashing between polite insistence and a less patient coaxing is only further enhanced by the manifest details of the verse's arrangement.
The adaptation of the opening hook phrase as it appears in the melody of the first two phrases conveys determined insistence on at least two levels. First off, in the second measure, the snapped rhythm heard in the intro is here replaced by a continuation of the "marcato", almost hammer-like quarter notes of the first two measures. Enhancing this is the way that Paul sustains the single tone of E *above* John's singing of the actual melody. Quite nicely, the snapped rhythm isn't entirely dispensed with here, but is rather moved all the way to the extended ending of the hook phrase in measure three, where it too adds to the mood of insistence.
The forward-propelling syncopations of the third phrase are put into bold italics by the antiphonal deployment of the backing voices of Paul and George; soon to become yet another Beatles signature device. Unusual here is the way in which the fragments sung by the lead and the backers fit seamlessly together in one melodic line; an effect of great antiquity in classical music, the technical term for which is "hocket."
Gentler though undeniable pushes forward are to be found as well in the drum fills which bridge measures 4/5, 7/8, and the springing guitar riff of measure 8 itself.
And on the side of vacillation, the harmonic rhythm over the course of these sixteen measure is more varied, changeable, and uneven than virtually any other example we've looked at in this series thus far.
Aside from some new lyrics, the entire verse is repeated virtually verbatim with one minor change made at the end to smoothly effect the transition into the bridge. In the last measure here, the harmony holds still on I, the hook phrase is truncated by half, and for a single instant (the only one of its kind in the entire song), all voices and guitars are tacit in favor of a series of solo drum fills. It's a subtle gesture which binds off what has preceded and, at the same time, leads ahead to what follows.
Even though this bridge is built out of the same old three basic chords, the lyrics of the song take a decided turn at this point for the openly confrontational in this section, and the music, too, provides plenty of contrast with what has preceded.
First off, there is the unusual ten-measure length that is broken up into two three phrase making for a pattern of 4+3+3, AA'B:
|A |B |E |- | IV V I |A |B |E | IV V I |A B |E |A B | IV V I IV V
Note how all three phrases start away from the tonic and quickly close in on it. The first phrase here is distinguished by its novel use of the backing voices; at first, just harmonized "ahhhs" behind John's solo, followed by the surprising "in my heart" rejoinder of measure 4.
The second phrase starts out parallel to the first one but opts for a climactic gesture in the third measure, and dispensing with what otherwise would have been the balancing fourth measure, moves directly into the third phrase with its quickened harmonic rhythm, open harmonic shape, and the reprise of the fanfare-like hook phrase, which draw you back to the final verse with the same music used earlier to lead from the first verse to the second one.
Strangely George does not play the exact text of the hook phrase at this point but rather a variation of it. This fact is exposed in a variety of alternate recordings of the song, such as those from the BEEB (or even the Anthology outtake), in which they usually omitted the harmonica fill at that point leaving George in the clear.
What is perhaps the most climactic moment of the entire song takes place in the third measure of this second bridge phrase; where the melody suddenly jumps an octave to high B (no coincidence, the single highest melodic peak in the song) on the phrase "to reason with YOU." Ironically, the chords for the beginning of all three bridge phrases are identical, yet, the E chord, which in the first phrase provides a focal point of repose, here in the second phrase, by virtue of the melodic high-point, serves as a jumping off point for the third phrase with its open ending on V; context is everything.
The musical climax of this section is in direct synchrony with that of the lyrics, yet, with the transition right into the final verse, we back off yet again from what otherwise might have seemed a point of no return.
The final verse is a full reprise of the first one, and the familiar device of ending with a triple repeat of the last sub-phrase is neatly worked in here as a natural outgrowth of the fourth phrase of the verse.
Although none of the thematic material in this outro is anything new by this point of the song, the boys do bring out a couple of surprises they've clearly been saving till the end. The first one is the pseudo-contrapuntal texture wherein the "please please me" and hook phrases seem to swirl and cascade around us. But most attention grabbing of all is choice of chords for the final phrase, each one of which is sharply punctuated by a fill of four even sixteenth notes on the snare drum:
|E G |C B |E |- | I V-of-flat-VI flat-VI V I
The use of the G and C chords is not nearly so far out as might seem at first sight; especially if you think of them in context of being borrowed, as it were, from the parallel minor key; besides, we were even sort of "warned" to half-expect something like this given the early appearance of the G chord by itself in the verse; kind of like how the murder weapon in a mystery appears as a casual prop in the first scene. Still, the bluesy hint of the minor mode plus the implicit cross-relations of the G and C naturals against predominant sharps of the E Major key makes an extremely bracing effect. For laughs, try this last phrase with the more "correct" diatonic chords of G# Major and c# minor and see how hopelessly square it sounds by contrast.
Some Final Thoughts
In the final result, this song is a worthy textbook example of where a fade out ending would be, not just wishy-washy, but suggestive of a different unraveling of our hero's outing; one filled with intimations of endless begging. Instead, the audacious ending we are given provides the quite appropriate denouement for the passionate plot of the song up to this point. It is as though our hero, careful not to shoot his whole wad too soon lest all else fails, has held back something, (not without some difficulty, I dare say), with which to bring things ultimately to a head with an abrupt, pro-active bang, so to speak; hence, the full ending from which, this time, there can be no retreat.
Regards, Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright (c) 1990, 2000 by Alan W. Pollack
All Rights Reserved
This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.
These articles were originally posted in the News Group rec.music.beatles. The content from this newsgroup is archived at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.
If you want to learn more about the musical side of song writing, chord progressions, harmony and theory through The Beatles songs (and/or The Beatles in particular), I recommend the following book:
Artist: Dominic Pedler
Arranged by The Beatles
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